As Gerard Hurley’s The Pier continues its run in cinemas around the country with a screening on Monday, 19th March at The Phoenix Cinema, Dingle, Co Kerry @ 6pm, Soracha Pelan Ó Treasaigh reports on its recent IFI screening as part of Ireland on Sunday series.
The Pier was screened as part of the Irish Film Institute’s Ireland on Sunday season showcasing new Irish film. Gerard Hurley (writer, director, producer and lead actor) was in attendance and took part in a post show discussion with the IFI Irish film curator, Sunniva O’ Flynn. The Pier tells the story of an Irishman returning to Ireland on news of his father’s illness. He is surprised by his father’s health when he arrives and the ensuing events revolve around the tension in their relationship. Hurley is originally from West Cork and has been living and working as a screenwriter in the US for twenty years. He was awarded funding from the Irish Film Board to make a film set in Ireland, and Hurley jumped at the chance having always wanted to make a film here.
The émigré returning to Ireland from America is a familiar story in Irish cinema, The Quiet Man being the most famous. O’ Flynn also pointed to the Kalem brothers’ films from the early 20th century, one of which was shot in both America and Ireland, like The Pier. Of course, in The Quiet Man the returning émigré is the picture of success and looks at Ireland with a distinctly romanticised view. This is not the case for Hurley personally and this comes across in the film. Both father and son are relatively poor and whilst West Cork certainly looks picturesque in parts– it doesn’t quite fit the bill of lush green fields, homely cottages and dancing maidens. Ireland viewed in this way is often seen in Irish cinema and these stereotypes are prolific in American representations of Ireland; see such recent films as P.S. I Love You, Leap Year and Laws of Attraction.
A member of the audience pointed out this difficult balance between telling a story with ‘home truths’ whilst keeping a hopeful message and at the same time not falling into the trap of romanticising the homeland. The film does not shy away from the difficulties between father and son; the characters express their feelings on each other with harsh language and behaviour that can be difficult to watch. O’ Flynn commented on a violent scene which she felt could potentially affect the audience’s sympathy with the main character. Hurley responded strongly that he did not consider it important whether the character is likeable, but that his actions should be true to the character he created. Hurley went on to discuss that he felt the love story with Lili Taylor’s (High Fidelity, Six Feet Under) character essential to the film in order to give a sense of hope to the story. The film, he said, is shrouded by the absence of the mother and this is the cause of the unhappiness of the two male leads, so Lili’s character provides a maternal counterpoint to this.
In discussing his directorial approach to the film, Hurley said that he was not trying to make ‘high art’, this owing to the limited budget but also because his priority is to tell an honest story, rather than focus on style. I certainly got the sense from him that the story takes precedence and this presumably stems from his experience as a scriptwriter. Discussing his writing process, he said that he does not work chronologically but instead focuses on one scene and builds the rest of the story around that. In The Pier the pivotal scene is when father and son finally confront the issues between them. A member of the audience asked if visually, the claustrophobic shots featured throughout were budget related or a directorial decision, to which Hurley responded simply ‘both.’ He again emphasised his intention to tell an honest story with the use of tighter shots focusing on the conversations and relationships between the principal characters. He then balances this with wider landscape shots to frame the story.
In addition to writing and directing, Hurley discussed his acting role in the film, playing the central character, Jack. The Pier is only his second time acting as he had starred in his previous film, The Pride. Hurley said that he does not have a real interest in acting; he took up the role in The Pride after the actor he had cast pulled out at the last minute. While not his preference, he finds acting to be challenging and emotionally involving in the process of losing himself in another personality.
The film was shot over eight days with limited time with the actors and on a very low budget. Such were his restraints that Hurley actually built an Irish kitchen in his basement to keep travel costs down for the actress Mary Foskett. The overriding message from Hurley is that as a filmmaker there are ways around budget limitations and that you don’t necessarily need a big budget or high-end equipment in order to tell the story. As a screenwriter tired of waiting for a script to get picked up, he directed it himself. As a writer/director with no principle actor, he stepped in. With limited distribution opportunities, he took on the task himself.
With the challenges facing filmmakers today with companies and distributers less eager and less equipped to take risks on small films like The Pier, Gerard Hurley certainly has the right attitude.
Soracha Pelan Ó Treasaigh